Musician Career

Musicians perform, compose, conduct, arrange, and teach music. Performing musicians may work alone or as part of a group, or ensemble. They may play before live audiences in clubs or auditoriums, or they may perform on television or radio, in motion pictures, or in a record­ing studio. Musicians usually play either classical, popu­lar (including rock and country), jazz, or folk music, but many musicians play several musical styles. Musicians, singers, and related workers hold approximately 249,000 jobs in the United States.

Musician Career History

According to ancient art and artifacts, humankind has enjoyed music at least since the establishment of early civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Musicians of these early cultures played instruments that were blown, plucked, or struck, just as is done by the musicians of today. Most of the early music, however, was vocal. In the ancient Egyptian temples, choirs sang to honor the gods, while in the court, musicians accompanied their songs with instruments of the wind, string, and percus­sion families. The ancient tribes of Israel used a shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet) to accompany some religious services, a practice that has been continued to the present day. It was the development of music in Greece, however, that clearly influenced Western music. The Greeks had a system of writing their music down, and they invented a system of scales called modes that was the forerunner of the modern major and minor scales. Roman music was founded on the Greek model. A seven-tone scale evolved under the Romans, and instrumentation was further developed, including the straight trumpet.

Musician CareerDuring the Middle Ages, a great catalyst for both change and preservation in music arrived with the devel­opment of musical notation, the written language of music. Much credit for this accomplishment is ascribed to Guido d’Arezzo, an 11th-cen­tury Italian monk who devised a system for writing music down on paper so that it might be pre­served and later read and played by other musicians. Many monks during this period devoted their lives to the preservation of the music of the church, and much of the knowledge and development of music is owed to their dedicated efforts. Throughout the Middle Ages, singers and musicians trav­eled from town to town to play for new audiences. During the Renais­sance, singers and musicians often had to depend on wealthy patrons for support. What we now call classical music developed during the Renaissance.

During the 17th century, the operatic form developed, most notably in Italy. Opera, combin­ing orchestral music and theater with an extremely popular form of singing, opened up a whole new range of opportunities for musicians, particularly singers. Singers soon began to gain fame in their own right for their incredible vocal feats, and great public demand for their performances allowed them to sever their dependent ties to wealthy patrons.

From about the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, opportunities for instrumental musicians expanded as composers began to write more complex musical pieces for larger ensembles. During this period, many of the world’s great symphonies, concerti, and chamber music were written and performed by musi­cians playing an ever-widening array of instruments. In the early 1800s came the onset of the Romantic move­ment in music, in which composers wrote with a new degree of emotionalism and self-expression that con­ductors and musicians were expected to express in their performance. Around the beginning of the 20th century, musical performers faced another challenge as compos­ers, seeking to break new musical ground, adapted atonal and discordant sounds and new rhythms to their compo­sitions, a direction greatly influenced by the 12-tone scale of Arnold Schoenberg.

The operatic, classical, and nationalistic music of Europe was brought to America by the migrating Euro­peans. Throughout the early history of the country, vir­tually all of the music played was European in style. By the end of the 19th century, however, and through the 20th, musicians increasingly came to play music that was distinctly American in style and composition. At least one musical form, jazz, was entirely an American invention.

The development of popular music and the develop­ment of recorded music greatly increased opportunities for musicians. U.S. popular music and jazz influenced music throughout the world. Swing grew out of jazz, and big swing bands mushroomed all over the United States during the late 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s. Big bands diminished by the late 1950s as rising costs and new popular music styles, such as rhythm and blues and rock and roll, directed the move to smaller groups using electric and electronic instruments. With the advent of electronic mass media, the musical superstar was created, as millions of people at a time could hear and see musical performers. Although the mass electronic media created an enormous market for popular music, it has ironically limited the market for live performances by musicians. The demand for live musicians was also reduced by the widening use of advanced electronic instruments, such as the synthesizer, which itself can replace a whole band, and the DJ (disc jockey), who plays recorded music over highly sophisticated sound systems, replacing musicians at clubs and gatherings.

Until about the mid-1900s, musicians and singers were largely an exploited group who made little money for the use of their skills. The growth of organizations designed to protect performing artists has helped greatly to improve the lot of musicians. Particularly effective was the American Federation of Musicians, the musi­cians’ union, which created a wage scale and oversaw the rights of musicians in recording, broadcasting, theater, and at any event in which musicians or their recordings are used. In some situations the union requires that live musicians be hired.

Musician Job Description

Instrumental musicians play one or more musical instru­ments, usually in a group and in some cases as featured soloists. Musical instruments are usually classified in several distinct categories according to the method by which they produce sound: strings (violins, cellos, basses, etc.), which make sounds by vibrations from bowing or plucking; woodwinds (oboes, clarinets, saxophones), which make sounds by air vibrations through reeds; brass (trumpets, French horns, trombones, etc.), which make sounds by air vibrations through metal; and per­cussion (drums, pianos, triangles), which produce sound by striking. Instruments can also be classified as electric or acoustic, especially in popular music. Synthesizers are another common instrument, and computer and other electronic technology increasingly is used for creating music.

Like other instrumental musicians, singers use their own voice as an instrument to convey music. They aim to express emotion through lyric phrasing and charac­terization.

Musicians may play in symphony orchestras, dance bands, jazz bands, rock bands, country bands, or other groups or they might go it alone. Some musicians may play in recording studios either with their group or as a session player for a particular recording. Recordings are in the form of records, tapes, compact discs, video­tape cassettes, and digital video discs. Classical musicians perform in concerts, opera performances, and chamber music concerts, and they may also play in theater orches­tras, although theater music is not normally classical. The most talented ones may work as soloists with orchestras or alone in recitals. Some classical musicians accom­pany singers and choirs, and they may also perform in churches, temples, and other religious settings.

Musicians who play popular music make heavy use of such rhythm instruments as piano, bass, drums, and guitar. Jazz musicians also feature woodwind and brass instruments, especially the saxophone and trumpet, and they extensively utilize the bass. Synthesizers are also com­monly used jazz instruments; some music is performed entirely on synthesizers, which can be programmed to imitate a variety of instruments and sounds. Musicians in jazz, blues, country, and rock groups play clubs, festivals, and concert halls and may perform music for recordings, television, and motion picture sound tracks. Occasion­ally they appear in a movie themselves. Other musicians compose, record, and perform entirely with electronic instruments, such as synthesizers and other devices. In the late 1970s, rap artists began using turntables as musi­cal instruments, and later, samplers, which record a snip­pet of other songs and sounds, as part of their music.

Instrumental musicians and singers use their skills to convey the form and meaning of written music. They work to achieve precision, fluency, and emotion within a piece of music, whether through an instrument or through their own voice. Musicians practice constantly to perfect their techniques.

Many musicians supplement their incomes through teaching, while others teach as their full-time occupation, perhaps playing jobs occasionally. Voice and instrumental music teachers work in colleges, high schools, elementary schools, conservatories, and in their own studios; often they give concerts and recitals featuring their students. Many professional musicians give private lessons. Stu­dents learn to read music, develop their voices, breathe correctly, and hold their instruments properly.

Choral directors lead groups of singers in schools and other organizations. Church choirs, community oratorio societies, and professional symphony choruses are among the groups that employ choral directors outside of school settings. Choral directors audition singers, select music, and direct singers in achieving the tone, variety, inten­sity, and phrasing that they feel is required. Orchestra conductors do the same with instrumental musicians. Many work in schools and smaller communities, but the best conduct large orchestras in major cities. Some are resident instructors, while others travel constantly, mak­ing guest appearances with major national and foreign orchestras. They are responsible for the overall sound and quality of their orchestras.

Individuals also write and prepare music for them­selves or other musicians to play and sing. Composers write the original music for symphonies, songs, or operas using musical notation to express their ideas through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Arrangers and orchestra-tors take a composer’s work and transcribe it for the vari­ous orchestra sections or individual instrumentalists and singers to perform; they prepare music for film scores, musical theater, television, or recordings. Copyists assist composers and arrangers by copying down the various parts of a composition, each of which is played by a dif­ferent section of the orchestra. Librettists write words to opera and musical theater scores, and lyricists write words to songs and other short musical pieces. A number of songwriters compose both music and lyrics, and many are musicians who perform their own songs.

Musician Career Requirements

High School

If you are interested in becoming a musician, you will probably have begun to develop your musical skills long before you entered high school. While you are in high school, however, there are a number of classes you can take that will help you broaden your knowledge. Natu­rally, take band, orchestra, or choir classes depending on your interest. In addition, you should also take math­ematics classes, since any musician needs to understand counting, rhythms, and beats. Many professional musi­cians write at least some of their own music, and a strong math background is very helpful for this. If your high school offers courses in music history or appreciation, be sure to take these. Finally, take classes that will improve your communication skills and your understanding of people and emotions, such as English and psychology. If you are interested in working in the classical music field, you will most likely need a college degree to suc­ceed in this area. Therefore, be sure to round out your high school education by taking other college prepara­tory classes. Finally, no matter what type of musician you want to be, you will need to devote much of your after-school time to your private study and practice of music.

Postsecondary Training

Depending on your interest, especially if it is popular music, further formal education is not required. College or conservatory degrees are only required for those who plan to teach in institutions. Nevertheless, you will only benefit from continued education.

Scores of colleges and universities have excellent music schools, and there are numerous conservatories that offer degrees in music. Many schools have noted musicians on their staff, and music students often have the advantage of studying under a professor who has a distinguished career in music. By studying with someone like this, you will not only learn more about music and performance, but you will also begin to make valuable connections in the field. You should know that having talent and a high grade point average do not always ensure entry into the top music schools. Competition for positions is extremely tough. You will probably have to audition, and only the most talented are accepted.

College undergraduates in music school generally take courses in music theory, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, melody, ear training, applied music, and music history. Courses in composing, arranging, and conduct­ing are available in most comprehensive music schools. Students will also have to take courses such as English and psychology along with a regular academic program.

Certification or Licensing

Musicians who want to teach in state elementary and high schools must be state certified. To obtain a state cer­tificate, musicians must satisfactorily complete a degree-granting course in music education at an institution of higher learning. About 600 institutions in the United States offer programs in music education that qualify students for state certificates. Music education programs include many of the same courses mentioned earlier for musicians in general. They also include education courses and supervised practice teaching. To teach in colleges and universities or in conservatories generally requires a graduate degree in music. Widely recognized musicians, however, sometimes receive positions in higher educa­tion without having obtained a degree.

The American Guild of Organists offers a number of voluntary, professional certifications to its members. Visit the Guild’s Web site ( for more information.

Other Requirements

Hard work and dedication are key factors in a musical career, but music is an art form, and like those who prac­tice any of the fine arts, musicians will succeed according to the amount of musical talent they have. Those who have talent and are willing to make sacrifices to develop it are the ones most likely to succeed. How much talent and ability one has is always open to speculation and opinion, and it may take years of studying and practice before musicians can assess their own degree of limitation.

There are other requirements necessary to becom­ing a professional musician that are just as important as training, education, and study. Foremost among these is a love of music strong enough to endure the arduous training and working life of a musician. To become an accomplished musician and to be recognized in the field requires an uncommon degree of dedication, self-disci­pline, and drive. Musicians who would move ahead must practice constantly with a determination to improve their technique and quality of performance. Musicians also need to develop an emotional toughness that will help them deal with rejection, indifference to their work, and ridicule from critics, which will be especially prevalent early in their careers. There is also praise and adulation along the way, which is easier to take but also requires a certain psychological handling.

For musicians interested in careers in popular music, little to no formal training is necessary. Many popular musicians teach themselves to play their instruments, which often results in the creation of new and excit­ing playing styles. Quite often, popular musicians do not even know how to read music. Some would say that many rock musicians do not even know how to play their instruments. This was especially true in the early days of the punk era (c. late 1970s-early 1980s). Most musicians, however, have a natural talent for rhythm and melody.

Many musicians often go through years of paying their dues—that is, receiving little money, respect, or attention for their efforts. Therefore, they must have a strong sense of commitment to their careers and to their creative ideas.

Professional musicians generally hold membership in the American Federation of Musicians (AFL-CIO), and concert soloists also hold membership in the American Guild of Musical Artists (AFL-CIO). Singers can belong to a branch of Associated Actors and Artists of America (AFL-CIO). Music teachers in schools often hold membership in MENC: The National Association for Music Education (formerly Music Educators National Conference).

Exploring Musician Career

The first step to exploring your interest in a musical career is to become involved with music. Elementary schools, high schools, and institutions of higher educa­tion all present a number of options for musical training and performance, including choirs, ensembles, bands, and orchestras. You also may have chances to perform in school musicals and talent shows. Those involved with services at churches, synagogues, or other religious insti­tutions have excellent opportunities for exploring their interest in music. If you can afford to, take private music lessons.

Musician CareerBesides learning more about music, you will most likely have the chance to play in recitals arranged by your teacher. You may also want to attend special summer camps or programs that focus on the field. Interlochen Center for the Arts (, for example, offers summer camps for students from the elementary to the high school level. College, university, and conservatory students gain valuable performance experience by appearing in recitals and playing in bands, orchestras, and school shows. The more enterprising students in high school and in college form their own bands and begin earning money by playing while still in school.

It is important for you to take advantage of every opportunity to audition so that you become comfortable with this process. There are numerous community ama­teur and semiprofessional theater groups throughout the United States that produce musical plays and operettas, in which beginning musicians can gain playing experience.


Most musicians work in large urban areas and are partic­ularly drawn to the major recording centers, such as Chi­cago, New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Miami Beach. Most musicians find work in churches, temples, schools, clubs, restaurants, and cruise lines, at weddings, in opera and ballet productions, and on film, television, and radio. Religious organizations are the largest single source of work for musicians.

Full-time positions as a musician in a choir, symphony orchestra, or band are few and are held only by the most talented. Musicians who are versatile and willing to work hard will find a variety of opportunities available, but all musicians should understand that work is not likely to be steady or provide much security. Many musicians sup­port themselves in another line of work while pursuing their musical careers on a part-time basis. Busy musi­cians often hire agents to find employers and negotiate contracts or conditions of employment.

Starting Out

Young musicians need to get involved in as many play­ing situations as they can in their school and community musical groups. They should audition as often as possi­ble, because experience at auditioning is very important. Whenever possible, they should take part in seminars and internships offered by orchestras, colleges, and asso­ciations. The National Orchestral Association ( offers training programs for musicians who want a career in the orchestral field.

Musicians who want to perform with established groups, such as choirs and symphony orchestras, enter the field by auditioning. Recommendations from teach­ers and other musicians often help would-be musicians obtain the opportunity to audition. Concert and opera soloists are also required to audition. Musicians must prepare themselves thoroughly for these auditions, which are demanding and stressful. A bad audition can be very discouraging for the young musician.

Popular musicians often begin playing at low-pay­ing social functions and at small clubs or restaurants. If people like their performances, they usually move on to bookings at larger rooms in better clubs. Continued suc­cess leads to a national reputation and possible recording contracts. Jazz musicians tend to operate in the same way, taking every opportunity to audition with established jazz musicians.

Music teachers enter the field by applying directly to schools. College and university placement offices often have listings of positions. Professional associations fre­quently list teaching openings in their newsletters and journals, as do newspapers. Music-oriented journals— such as the American Federation of Musicians’ journal International Musician ( —are excellent sources to check for job listings.


Popular musicians, once they have become established with a band, advance by moving up to more famous bands or by taking leadership of their own group. Bands may advance from playing small clubs to larger halls and even stadiums and festivals. They may receive a recording contract; if their songs or recordings prove successful, they can command higher fees for their contracts. Sym­phony orchestra musicians advance by moving to the head of their section of the orchestra. They can also move up to a position such as assistant or associate conductor. Once instrumental musicians acquire a reputation as accomplished artists, they receive engagements that are of higher status and remuneration, and they may come into demand as soloists. As their reputations develop, both classical and popular musicians may receive attractive offers to make recordings and personal appearances.

Popular and opera singers move up to better and more lucrative jobs through recognition of their tal­ent by the public or by music producers and directors and agents. Their advancement is directly related to the demand for their talent and their own ability to promote themselves.

Music teachers in elementary and secondary schools may, with further training, aspire to careers as supervi­sors of music of a school system, a school district, or an entire state. With further graduate training, teachers can qualify for positions in colleges, universities, and music conservatories, where they can advance to become department heads. Well-known musicians can become artists-in-residence in the music departments of institu­tions of higher learning.


It is difficult to estimate the earnings of the average musi­cian, because what a musician earns is dependent upon his or her skill, reputation, geographic location, type of music, and number of engagements per year.

According to the American Federation of Musicians, musicians in the major U.S. symphony orchestras earned salaries of between $16,800 and $108,160 during the 2004-05 performance season. The season for these major orchestras, generally located in the largest U.S. cities, ranges from 24 to 52 weeks. Featured musicians and solo­ists can earn much more, especially those with an inter­national reputation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings of musicians, singers, and related workers were $17.91 per hour or $37,253 in 2004. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $6.51 per hour or about $13,541 annually, while the highest paid 10 percent earned $52.88 per hour or $109,990 annually.

Popular musicians are usually paid per concert or gig. A band just starting out playing a small bar or club may be required to play three sets a night, and each musician may receive next to nothing for the entire evening. Often, bands receive a percentage of the cover charge at the door. Some musicians play for drinks alone. On average, however, pay per musician ranges from $30 to $300 or more per night. Bands that have gained recognition and a following may earn far more, because a club owner can usually be assured that many people will come to see the band play. The most successful popular musicians, of course, can earn millions of dollars each year. By the end of the 1990s, some artists, in fact, had signed recording contracts worth $20 million or more.

Musicians are well paid for studio recording work, when they can get it. For recording film and television background music, musicians are paid a minimum of about $185 for a three-hour session; for record com­pany recordings they receive a minimum of about $235 for three hours. Instrumentalists performing live earn anywhere from $30 to $300 per engagement, depending on their degree of popularity, talent, and the size of the room they play.

According to the American Guild of Organists, full­-time organists employed by religious institutions had the following base salary ranges by educational attain­ment in 2003: bachelor’s degree, $45,253 to $64,356; master’s degree, $51,486 to $74,256; and Ph.D., $58,001 to $83,584.

The salaries received by music teachers in public ele­mentary and secondary schools are the same as for other teachers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, public elementary and high school teachers had median yearly earnings of $43,660 and $46,120, respectively, in 2004. Music teachers in colleges and universities have widely ranging salaries. Most teachers supplement their incomes through private instruction and by performing in their off hours.

Most musicians do not, as a rule, work steadily for one employer, and they often undergo long periods of unemployment between engagements. Because of these factors, few musicians can qualify for unemployment compensation. Unlike other workers, most musicians also do not enjoy such benefits as sick leave or paid vaca­tions. Some musicians, on the other hand, who work under contractual agreements, do receive benefits, which usually have been negotiated by artists unions, such as the American Federation of Musicians.

Work Environment

Work conditions for musicians vary greatly. Perform­ing musicians generally work in the evenings and on weekends. They also spend much time practicing and rehearsing for performances. Their workplace can be almost anywhere, from a swanky club to a high school gymnasium to a dark, dingy bar. Many concerts are given outdoors and in a variety of weather conditions. Performers may be given a star’s dressing room, share a mirror in a church basement, or have to change in a bar’s storeroom. They may work under the hot camera lights of film or television sets or tour with a troupe in subzero temperatures. They may work amid the noise and confusion of a large rehearsal of a Broadway show or in the relative peace and quiet of a small recording studio. Seldom are two days in a performer’s life alike.

Many musicians and singers travel a great deal. More prominent musicians may travel with staffs who make their arrangements and take care of wardrobes and equipment. Their accommodations are usually quite comfortable, if not luxurious, and they generally play in major urban centers. Lesser-known musicians may have to take care of all their own arrangements and put up with modest accommodations in relatively remote places. Some musicians perform on the streets, at subway or bus stations, and other places likely to have a great deal of passersby. Symphony orchestra musicians probably travel less than most, but musicians in major orchestras usually travel first class.

The chief characteristic of musical employment is its lack of continuity. Few musicians work full time and most experience periods of unemployment between engagements. Most work other jobs to supplement their music or performing incomes. Those who are in great demand generally have agents and managers to help direct their careers.

Music teachers affiliated with institutions work the same hours as other classroom teachers. Many of these teachers, however, spend time after school and on week­ends directing and instructing school vocal and instru­mental groups. Teachers may also have varied working conditions. They may teach in a large urban school, con­ducting five different choruses each day, or they may work in several rural elementary schools and spend much time driving from school to school.

College or university instructors may divide their time between group and individual instruction. They may teach several musical subjects and may be involved with planning and producing school musical events. They may also supervise student music teachers when they do their practice teaching.

Private music teachers work part or full time out of their own homes or in separate studios. The ambiance of their workplace would be in accordance with the size and nature of their clientele.

Musician Career Outlook

It is difficult to make a living solely as a musician, and this will continue because competition for jobs will be as intense as it has been in the past. Most musicians must hold down other jobs while pursuing their music careers. Thousands of musicians are all trying to make it in the music industry. Musicians are advised to be as versatile as possible, playing various kinds of music and more than one instrument. More importantly, they must be com­mitted to pursuing their craft.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employ­ment of musicians will grow about as fast as the average through 2014. Slower-than-average growth is predicted for self-employed musicians. The demand for musicians will be greatest in theaters and restaurants as the public continues to spend more money on recreational activi­ties. The outlook is favorable in churches and other reli­gious organizations. The increasing numbers of cable television networks and new television programs will likely cause an increase in employment for musicians. Digital recording technology has also made it easier and less expensive for musicians to produce and distribute their own recordings. However, few musicians will earn substantial incomes from these efforts. Popular musicians may receive many short-term engagements in nightclubs, restaurants, and theaters, but these engagements offer little job stability. The supply of musicians for virtually all types of music will continue to exceed the demand for the foreseeable future.

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